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How many people can safely fit on the MBTA during a pandemic?

Business groups call for mostly empty vehicles to keep with proper physical distancing.

Transit ridership has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

What does 6 feet of distance actually look like on an MBTA vehicle? Think 10 people per bus, or 21 riders on a Red Line car.

Those are the findings in a new report by the business group A Better City, which is calling for state transit officials to target low passenger counts on trains and buses in order to limit crowding as the region prepares to slowly return to work.

The report was released Friday, three days before Governor Charlie Baker is expected to detail how Massachusetts businesses will be allowed to return to work, including commuting on the MBTA. Public transit agencies around the world have been wrestling with how to keep vehicles that are designed to cram in riders from serving as infection hot spots as their regions lurch awake from shutdowns and stay-home orders.


While it will be crucial for some workers to continue telecommuting, that alone might not ensure enough space for riders, said Rick Dimino, A Better City’s chief executive.

“There will be some people who need to use the T. We have a substantial transit-dependent ridership in Boston and Greater Boston, and we need to make sure we’re providing the safest conditions for them,” Dimino said. “And physical distancing needs to be part of the program.”

The MBTA has not yet released a detailed plan for the reopening stage, but transportation officials and Baker have urged businesses to continue allowing white-collar employees to work from home. Meanwhile, the T expects ridership to remain far below normal for months, but will nonetheless resume regular weekday service to ensure there is enough capacity for those fewer riders to spread out.

“Continuing to work hard on efforts to keep the system clean and safe, the MBTA plans to increase service to support the phased reopening of the economy and limit undesirable crowding,” said MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston, who did not address A Better City’s proposed limits on passengers.


The business group sought to define more precisely the safe number of passengers for each vehicle. Its report considered two different standards for social distance: a more crowded measure of 1 meter between riders, or one that allowed a full 6 feet. Neither would allow anywhere near the normal capacity on a T vehicle.

For the T’s 40-foot buses, the 6-foot standard would mean a maximum of 10 riders, while 1 meter would allow 22. For the Green Line, each trolley could hold either 18 or 45 people, depending on the standard. The Red Line could hold either 21 or 57, with the Blue and Orange lines each lower. And the highest-capacity commuter rail coaches would be limited to 42 or 91 riders.

All told, the T could accommodate about 25 percent of its normal morning rush hour ridership if each rider got 6 feet of distance; with 1 meter, it would be at about half. Those numbers could rise more if the T extended its rush-hour service from the usual three-hour period to five and riders staggered their commutes over the period. That would likely require companies to institute different shift times.

“That’s why spreading the peak is so important,” Dimino said. “We all have to take steps to do that, and that’s why staggered work hours are so essential.”

The report did not address crowding and spacing at stations, except to briefly suggest signage on social distancing practice. The report also referenced transit systems in Singapore, Rome, and Paris that have used floor markings on platforms to achieve that goal.


The MBTA has already adopted a new measurement for crowding on buses to determine where it needs to run more service. Buses used to be considered crowded once 50 people were on board; during the pandemic, the standard is 20.

Other cities have experimented with hard capacity limits. In Seattle, buses no longer accept more riders once they reach a capacity limit. Chicago, meanwhile, has given drivers discretion to stop picking up riders.

MBTA general manager Steve Poftak has seemed reluctant to enforce rider caps, arguing at a recent public meeting that they could be unfair to some riders and that it would be nearly impossible to ask train operators to gauge and enforce crowd sizes. But, “it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it,” he added.

Dimino suggested turning some buses that get too full into express routes, while supplementing the service with backup vehicles to collect riders left waiting on the curb. But mostly, he said, the T should rely on messaging encouraging passengers to spread out travel times, and putting signs blocking off certain seats to keep riders spread apart.